Consent Under the Influence?

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Alcohol and sex are commonly tied to one another. We see it intermingled in headlines, advertisements, and rape myths. Media saturates seduction with booze everywhere you turn, but why is drunk sex considered a socially acceptable thing?

I want to start an honest conversation about drinking and sex. I don’t want to say that drunken sex is always wrong and, most importantly, I do not want to victim blame. There is absolutely no question that affirmative consent should always be clear, constant, and coherent. If someone is intoxicated, they cannot give legal consent to a number of things, not just sex. After all, even in Vegas, you have to be sober to get married. Entering into any contractual agreement while incapacitated is usually voidable in the eyes of the law. This is because drinking is proven to decrease cognitive ability and awareness of risk. If you proposition someone while they are drunk, you are entering into dangerous territory, because this person may not be capable of assessing the situation.

Unfortunately, this is not common sense for many people. Many assume that if a person is not completely passed out, then they are accountable for their actions. In reality, the scientific evidence shows a wide spectrum of behaviors when someone is incapacitated. The appearance of being “blackout drunk” can be very different from one person to the next. Therefore, that “drunken escapade” may actually be rape.rape-time-to-stop

I don’t say this to place blame or to cause civil unrest. I say this because I want to cultivate empathy and encourage good judgment and open discussion within our community. The truth is that alcohol comes with a list of risks, and sexual violence can unfortunately be one of them. As a community we need to accept this and work on creating a healthy environment for sex that doesn’t revolve completely around alcohol.

So how do we start?

Don’t romanticize drunken sex. Intoxication dampens arousal and decreases coordination, which can lead to a nightmarish mix of fumbling and nausea. Furthermore, alcohol limits your ability to enjoy yourself. Let’s stop pretending that it’s a guaranteed good time and accept that good drunk sex is like a unicorn: rare.

Don’t expect alcohol to get you laid. Alcohol is not your social crutch nor your pardon for bad behavior. If you need to “loosen someone up” to have sex with them, then you shouldn’t be hooking up in the first place. Be wary of acquaintances that push or encourage others to drink. Consent should be freely given, not coerced by alcohol or drugs.

Don’t blame victims who were drinking at the time of their assault. Drinking is not a crime; rape is. Placing the blame on the survivor only perpetuates self-doubt and hurt. Drinking might make people more vulnerable to sexual assault, but it doesn’t make them more culpable for what happened to them. Drinking makes it harder for victims to perceive risks or to resist force, and perpetrators are always wholly accountable for their actions whether alcohol was involved or not.

Lastly, we need to make this a team effort. Most of the literature about the dangers of drinking is targeted toward women. Women are told to watch their drink, their friends, and their intake, as if this will magically keep them safe from assault. This is victim blaming, and it doesn’t look at the larger picture of how alcohol relates to rape culture. If we truly want to change rape culture, everyone – regardless of their gender – should be taught to recognize the risks of drinking for themselves and others.

Gentry Hodnett is our Administrative Services Coordinator. She manages our office and provides integral staff support.

Help “Raise the Bar” in Our Community

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Sexual violence happens in private businesses, private residences, and public spaces. We are striving to create a community where sexual violence is not tolerated in any environment. Private business owners who maintain a liquor license can help make this happen by setting clear expectations for their patrons and empowering their staff to a model positive behavior for our community. Private businesses have the ability to prevent sexual violence from happening at their establishments as well as after their patrons leave their business.

Since 2013, UNC Student Wellness has partnered with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, the Carolina Women’s Center, and the Chapel Hill Police Department to implement Raise the Bar, a training that provides bar staff with the tools to recognize warning signs of drug facilitated sexual assault and strategies to intervene when they see them. Raise the Bar discusses bystander intervention strategies specifically for bar staff.

Alcohol is the most common substance used in drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA), making bar staff particularly crucial allies in preventing sexual violence. Since we cannot identify perpetrators of DFSA by the way they look, we have to pay attention to their behavior. A perpetrator may take advantage when someone chooses to use drugs or alcohol, or they may intentionally give someone drugs or alcohol. For example, a potential perpetrator may pay a lot of attention to someone who is intoxicated, continue to buy drinks for that person, or try to isolate them away from their friends. They may also test boundaries, and ignore when someone says or acts like they are not interested. Bar staff may witness any of these behaviors and have the power to intervene before a potential perpetrator can harm someone.

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The Red Zone

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red zoneThe first six to ten weeks of the semester are referred to as the “red zone” for sexual assault, meaning that a large percentage of sexual assault on college campuses happens during this time. Understanding the inherent risks of your new environment can dramatically reduce the potential for dangerous situations to arise. It is important to be educated about what sexual assault is and the best ways to prevent harm to yourself or those around you.

Know the facts about consent and interpersonal violence. Consent is a verbal, sober, continuous, and positive yes. If they have to be convinced, it is not consent. If they are not sober, it is not consent. Consent is freely given and freely withdrawn. This means that consent one time or for one act does not mean consent for every time or for every act.

Be an advocate for others. If you are not seeking ways to be a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. Do your best to watch out for potentially dangerous situations and intervene when possible, keeping in mind that there are resources for help available at all hours of the day and night.

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The Sexual Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

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At the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Mass Incarceration

Over the past couple of years, sexual violence in America has received much more attention as the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has exploded into the mainstream consciousness. As the public, students, and higher education institutions continue to grapple with this epidemic, the Human Rights Project for Girls reminds us with their recently released study, The Sexual Abuse To Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, that sexual violence does not impact only college age youth. It impacts young girls, particularly young girls of color (primarily African-Americans, Latinas, and Native Americans) as well as youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or gender non-conforming (GNC). Young girls of color and LGBT/GNC girls are at a particularly high risk because the justice system punishes youth of color and youth who do not conform to gender norms much more harshly than their white heterosexual counterparts.

What does sexual abuse have to do with incarceration?

Experiencing sexual abuse puts girls at enormous risk for arrest and incarceration. When girls are arrested, it is rarely because they have committed a violent crime. More often than not, they are arrested because they have become truant, run away, or engage in substance abuse (which are called status offenses for youth under 18). Why did they stop going to school or run away from home? The answer, in many cases, is that girls are running away from abusive situations. They are then arrested and locked up for running away.  This is the cycle that is the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. At the root of this cycle is sexual violence. The reactions girls have to this violence — which they are punished for — are merely coping behaviors.

Wait, so…they are victims of sexual abuse, and they run away to escape the abuse, but running away is a crime, so they get arrested?

Yep. That’s what is so unjust about all of this. Girls become involved with the juvenile justice system because of the way they have responded to the trauma of sexual abuse. But running away, truancy, and substance abuse are all common and understandable reactions to abuse and ought to be treated as warning signs and NOT criminalized.

The juvenile justice system does not have a great history of adequately addressing trauma. In fact, the reason why the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline is considered a cycle is that young girls often end up right back whether they started. First, they are victims of sexual violence. Then, they engage in coping behaviors that result in their incarceration. Next, they are subject to the traumatic experience of incarceration itself with very limited access to services. Finally, they are released back into the initially abusive environment, where they once again engage in the same trauma coping behaviors. And what do you think happens then? They are arrested again. Rinse and Repeat. And Repeat. And Repeat.

Well, this is a bit overwhelming. What are we supposed to do?

It sure is overwhelming.  The thing about responding to social injustice is that there’s never just one solution. There are people who are doing a lot of work to change laws and policies that negatively impact the lives of youth who are victims of sexual violence. And that’s a good thing. But there are also things that we can do as social workers, community educators, crisis intervention specialists, and community members.

Acknowledge that sexual violence impacts everyone across race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Make the connections. Child sexual abuse is a problem. The mass incarceration of people of color in this country is a problem. These two problems are connected. There are some organizations that have analyzed the connections between the prison system and sexual violence.

Respond appropriately. Sexual violence is not just about the act itself. It brings with it many repercussions that are faced primarily by the victims and not nearly enough by the perpetrators. We need to make sure that the aftermath of sexual violence is not as traumatic as — or MORE traumatic than — the act itself.

Look deeper. What we see as defiant or undesirable behavior on the part of youth are often responses to and symptoms of trauma. Take the time to figure out what is really going on instead of witnessing a behavior and immediately labeling it as problematic.

Speak out. Find and contact your representative today! Join Rights4Girls in telling our members of Congress that child sex trafficking and gender-based violence against young women and girls must end now.

I mean it when I say that we can end sexual violence. But it’s going to take all of us working together to make a change.

Dolores Chandler recently joined the Center as our Prevention Coordinator. As a member of the Community Education team, they coordinate our StartStrong program, working to prevent peer-to-peer perpetration of violence among adolescents.

The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 2

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If you missed Part 1 of this story, you can access it here

In the last post, we covered what a rape kit is, and the scope of the rape kit backlog. In this post we will pick up with the progress and challenges of getting to the bottom of the backlog.

Successes so Far

rape-kits-backlogFifteen states and dozens of municipalities have made the pledge to get to the bottom of the backlog, with huge success: thousands of kits have been processed, identifying hundreds of serial rapists. After a 2011 call by the Ohio Attorney General to process old rape kits, over 8,000 kits were sent to Ohio’s state crime lab, and over 4,000 have been tested so far. These tests have resulted in 1,474 matches with the national DNA database—over 35% of kits that had been sitting in storage had a match. What is even more staggering is that at least 200 suspected serial rapists have been identified. Houston mayor, Annise Parker, prioritized the processing of rape kits, even though it cost $5.9 million. They turned up 894 DNA hits on the national database.

North Carolina

The State Crime Lab of North Carolina prides itself on processing rape kits sent to their lab immediately. However, even “immediately” still means survivors are waiting 18 months to 2 years for results. According to a recent report, the state crime labs are struggling with recruitment and retention of scientists, many of whom leave after only a short time for better paying jobs in the private sector. The state is taking steps to decrease turnaround time for DNA evidence by opening a new lab and hiring additional scientists, and the General Assembly is considering salary increases to improve retention. An unfortunate consequence of the delay is that after two years of waiting, it is harder to secure a conviction, and sometimes survivors just want to move on.

In Charlotte, where they have their own crime lab, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department stated that even though there is a backlog of 1,019 kits, this number should not be taken seriously, because over 600 of those were from cases that had been closed. But a major argument for the processing of kits in the backlog is to find hits even in closed cases. For example, a kit that was not processed due to lack of evidence could produce a match with DNA previously entered for a no-suspect rape case, or another rape case closed for lack of evidence—putting the pieces together can strengthen both cases and help get serial rapists off the streets.

For Survivors

Bringing perpetrators to justice seems like a win-win for survivors and society. For many survivors, having their rape kits tested finally brings credibility to their stories that may have been dismissed by law enforcement or even family and friends. It may bring a sense of closure and vindication. Debbie Smith, after whom the 2004 Debbie Smith Act is named, described feeling the end of six years of fear and torment when her rape kit turned up a match for someone who was in prison for another crime.

Another facet of processing old rape kits, however, is that some of the kits are years, even decades, old. Some jurisdictions notify survivors when a kit is finally processed or only when a match is found. This notification process can be deeply painful for many survivors. Being contacted out of the blue by law enforcement about a rape that happened years ago can be very traumatic. Wherever the survivor is in their healing process, they may be plunged back into memories of the assault and possibly even called to appear in court. Even for survivors who had been longing to get the chance to put their perpetrator behind bars, this can be a highly stressful and tumultuous process.

Our Services

A key component of the Center’s services is offering information and support before, during, and after a rape kit is collected. Our companions are trained to help prepare survivors for the physical and emotional realities of a rape kit, and they can accompany survivors to the emergency room to support them through the process if they choose to go ahead with the collection. The Center also offers free and confidential support to anyone at any point in their healing journey, be it days or decades after an assault.

Other Resources

Rosemary Byrnes is a summer intern at the Center while she works toward her Master in Social Work degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. She works with the client services team to support survivors in our community.

The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 1

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The CSI Effect

textrib-rapekits-003Crime shows on TV make it look so easy. You see investigators talking with the weeping victim, and then the scene cuts to someone walking in with coffee in one hand and a file folder in the other. The results came back from the lab and they’ve got a match. Unfortunately, in real life, evidence collection and processing after a sexual assault is often a traumatic, time-consuming procedure, fraught with prejudice, victim-blaming, and political pressures.

What is a Rape Kit?

A “rape kit” is shorthand for the process that a survivor can choose to undergo within 72 hours of a sexual assault to preserve evidence that may link the perpetrator to the crime. Essentially, the survivor’s body is the scene of the crime, and a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) collects samples of anything that might contain DNA or other physical evidence, such as swabs of the mouth and genitals, the survivor’s clothing, and brushings from the survivor’s body. The SANE nurse also takes pictures and documents any injuries. Samples of the survivor’s blood, saliva, and hair (both head hair and pubic hair) are taken to compare to any other evidence found. The survivor’s full medical history as well as an account of the assault is recorded. The rape kit collection usually takes four to six hours to complete, during which time the survivor is discouraged from eating, drinking, or using the bathroom. The evidence is then packed up in a box and handed over to law enforcement.

In North Carolina, if the survivor is not filing a police report right then, the box is put in storage for up to one year and can be retrieved if and when the survivor decides to press charges. If an investigation is opened, the DNA collected from the survivor’s body can be compared to the DNA of a suspect if there is one, or entered into the national DNA database to see if there is a match with anyone already known to law enforcement. DNA can confirm known suspects, identify unknown suspects, or eliminate suspects from the investigation.

The Scope of the Backlog

It is estimated that around the country, over 400,000 rape kits are sitting on shelves unprocessed. The exact number is unknown because few police precincts or crime labs keep data on the rape kits they process or have waiting in storage. How does this pile-up happen? Despite what you might think from watching CSI, this evidence is time-consuming and costly to put through the crime lab. Each rape kit costs between $900 and $1,600 to process, and if the prosecutor or police feel there is not a solid-enough case to prosecute the perpetrator, the kit may go untested, even if the survivor files a police report.

While this may seem fiscally responsible to some, it has devastating consequences. An investigative report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed that the majority of the kits that were not processed were collected from survivors who were minorities, had mental illnesses or disabilities, were homeless, or were sex workers. In essence, survivors were profiled by police and prosecutors for their “believability” (or lack thereof), and in some cases the survivors themselves were not even interviewed before the cases were closed. Tragically, law enforcement was using the same kind of profiling used by rapists to prey upon society’s most vulnerable.

What is being done?

In the past decade there have been public and political appeals to end the rape kit backlog. Several pieces of legislation, such as the Debbie Smith Act and the SAFER Act, have been passed to understand the scope of the backlog and allocate funding to help states process kits.

In the next post, we will explore the successes and challenges in the quest to end the rape kit backlog, as well as what is happening here in North Carolina. Stay tuned!

Read Part 2 here.

Rosemary Byrnes is a summer intern at the Center while she works toward her Master in Social Work degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. She works with the client services team to support survivors in our community.

Everything Is Awful and I’m Not Okay

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Questions to Ask Before Giving Up

everything hurtsAre you hydrated? If not, have a glass of water.

Have you eaten in the past three hours? If not, get some food — something with protein, not just simple carbs. Perhaps some nuts or hummus?

Have you showered in the past day? If not, take a shower right now.

If daytime: are you dressed? If not, put on clean clothes that aren’t pajamas. Give yourself permission to wear something special, whether it’s a funny t-shirt or a pretty dress.

If nighttime: are you sleepy and fatigued but resisting going to sleep? Put on pajamas, make yourself cozy in bed with a teddy bear and the sound of falling rain, and close your eyes for fifteen minutes — no electronic screens allowed. If you’re still awake after that, you can get up again; no pressure.

Have you stretched your legs in the past day? If not, do so right now. If you don’t have the spoons for a run or trip to the gym, just walk around the block, then keep walking as long as you please. If the weather’s crap, drive to a big box store (e.g. Target) and go on a brisk walk through the aisles you normally skip.

Have you said something nice to someone in the past day? Do so, whether online or in person. Make it genuine; wait until you see something really wonderful about someone, and tell them about it.

Have you moved your body to music in the past day? If not, do so — jog for the length of an EDM song at your favorite BPM, or just dance around the room for the length of an upbeat song.

Have you cuddled a living being in the past two days? If not, do so. Don’t be afraid to ask for hugs from friends or friends’ pets. Most of them will enjoy the cuddles too; you’re not imposing on them.

Do you feel ineffective? Pause right now and get something small completed, whether it’s responding to an e-mail, loading up the dishwasher, or packing your gym bag for your next trip. Good job!

Do you feel unattractive? Take a selfie. Your friends will remind you how great you look, and you’ll fight society’s restrictions on what beauty can look like.

Do you feel paralyzed by indecision? Give yourself ten minutes to sit back and figure out a game plan for the day. If a particular decision or problem is still being a roadblock, simply set it aside for now, and pick something else that seems doable. Right now, the important part is to break through that stasis, even if it means doing something trivial.

Have you seen a therapist in the past few days? If not, hang on until your next therapy visit and talk through things then.

Have you been over-exerting yourself lately — physically, emotionally, socially, or intellectually? That can take a toll that lingers for days. Give yourself a break in that area, whether it’s physical rest, taking time alone, or relaxing with some silly entertainment.

Have you changed any of your medications in the past couple of weeks, including skipped doses or a change in generic prescription brand? That may be screwing with your head. Give things a few days, then talk to your doctor if it doesn’t settle down.

Have you waited a week? Sometimes our perception of life is skewed, and we can’t even tell that we’re not thinking clearly, and there’s no obvious external cause. It happens. Keep yourself going for a full week, whatever it takes, and see if you still feel the same way then.

You’ve made it this far, and you will make it through. You are stronger than you think.

Re-posted from Eponis | Sinope on Tumblr (original post here and follow-up post here).

Writing to Unravel a Taboo

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For one survivor of sexual abuse, writing emerges as key for personal and societal healing.



Ruminating by Naomi Heitz

“Unspeakable,” says the pope. I cringe. That’s just it, I think. Even when he’s publicly trying to apologize for the horrific crimes and secrecy within the church, he’s choosing a word that literally encourages more silence. It’s September 2010, and I wonder if Pope Benedict wishes that the world would stop speaking about the church’s sexual abuse history.

I certainly have felt in my own life the heavy weight of the taboo about speaking about sexual abuse. The outer threads of this dense blanketing taboo have started unraveling as the prevalence of sexual violation becomes more accepted. As a survivor of sexual abuse (note: not in the Catholic church), I can sense more tightly knitted fabric creating the core of the taboo. It’s our society’s preference to not look at or hear about the personal damage created by sexual violence. It lands in my body as a taut band that keeps my ribs from expanding comfortably when I breathe. It’s a spongy clog in my throat and a trace of nausea building in my gut. The taboo becomes friends with the direct damage from sexual trauma and feeds the pain. It’s difficult to fully heal in a culture that on the whole doesn’t get how wide-ranging and long-lasting sexual trauma symptoms can be.

Writing about my experiences helps me spread the fibers of the suffocating taboo. I write what tumbles through my mind. I translate into words the reverberations, blocks, and floods of trauma imprints within my body. Writing documents my healing patterns, releases my pain, and lets more clarity flow through me. With clarity comes more courage. So I continue to write and speak, even as I meet the taboo on an almost daily basis.

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SafeTouch Success Story

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alexis and puppetsThe Center has presented SafeTouch to kids in our community for over 30 years. These violence prevention education programs use evidence-based best practices in age-appropriate lessons to promote safety and reduce child sexual abuse. The curriculum is continually reviewed and updated with teacher and parent input.

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is unfortunately much more common than many people realize. Darkness to Light (D2L), a national organization to end child abuse, estimates that about 1 in 10 children experience sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. Even more children experience non-contact sexual abuse. Only about a third of kids tell someone when they experience abuse. CSA occurs across all demographic groups and can have long-lasting negative impacts such as physical and mental health problems, emotional and behavioral issues, and poor academic performance.

Though the problem of CSA looms large, the Center has a successful prevention program on multiple counts. First, by sheer numbers, we are very successful in getting these crucial public safety messages out to the county. We present SafeTouch programs in every classroom of every elementary school in both local school districts. Overall, we reached 14,805 youth and adults in 865 education programs during the 2013-2014 school year.

Second, we know that our programs work! Through rigorous assessment and evaluation, we found that 94 percent of 4th graders who had been in our program in the year previous could accurately remember the safety saying. Additionally, when compared with students who had not received Safe Touch programs, students who had been through our 4th and 5th grade programs were significantly more likely to accurately identify cyber-bullying and sexual harassment and to have positive beliefs about reporting inappropriate or unwanted behaviors.

And third, we help stop abuse in our community. We train our staff and volunteers to look for signs of possible child abuse, or ‘red flags,’ during programs. We work with school personnel and Child Protective Services to investigate any disclosures or red flags and ensure that children receive the services they need. During the 2013-2014 school year, we followed up on 12 direct disclosures of abuse received during our classroom presentations and on 119 ‘red flag’ signs of potential abuse. For any of those children who disclosed abuse or exhibited red flag behaviors, the support and care they received through our intervention is a success story indeed.

For information about our programs and how to request one for your group, visit

Interested in getting involved? We are now accepting applications for SafeTouch Educators, StartStrong Educators, and a CSA Prevention Intern!

Alyson Culin is our Development & Marketing Director. She supports the Center through fundraising, communications, and outreach efforts.

PREA: A Long Road for Incarcerated Survivors

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“Sexual abuse is a crime, and should not be the punishment for a crime.”
– US Department of Justice Letter to Governors, March 5, 2015

prison stock photoWhile this statement might seem obvious to those who work in sexual violence prevention and response, it represents a profound shift in how the wider public, and even those in corrections, view sexual assault in the context of prison. Rape and sexual harassment have long been considered an inevitable—or even deserved—part of the prison experience. Additionally, sexual violence is ingrained in the prison system, perpetrated (by inmates as well as guards) as a means of establishing and maintaining power dynamics and prison hierarchy.

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) was passed in 2003 to address the epidemic of sexual assault in all corrections facilities, but comprehensive guidelines didn’t take effect until 2012, with the National Standards to Prevent, Detect, and Respond to Prison Rape. Finally, just this month, May 2015, the Department of Justice will begin to enforce those guidelines by withholding funding from states that are not in compliance. The National Standards specify that any confinement facility (including prisons, jails, lock-ups, juvenile facilities, and community and immigrant detention centers) must:

  • Adopt a “zero-tolerance policy” towards sexual assault and sexual harassment
  • Train both staff and inmates on sexual abuse
  • Train staff on effective and professional communication with LGBTQ and gender non-conforming inmates
  • Provide at least two internal and one external way for inmates to report abuse
  • Provide access to outside advocates for emotional support related to the abuse, and provide as much confidentiality as possible
  • Discipline perpetrators of sexual assault, both guards and inmates
  • Separate youth in adult correctional facilities and prevent unsupervised contact with adults
  • Provide access to support services for inmates with disabilities and limited English proficiency
  • Ensure inmates have timely access to appropriate medical and mental health services, on par with community level of care

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